Why Is Power Always So Threatened By Free Speech

‘The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.’

Edmund Burke’s words might be one way to put the relationship between free speech and power. While the release of student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha from Tihar prison in the north-east Delhi riots “conspiracy” case is a small win, the fight just pauses. It is a battle that will not cease, not as long as those in power feel the desperate need to quash free voices. The order comes two days after the Delhi High Court granted bail for Narwal, Kalita and Tanha, who were arrested last May under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). In April this year, the Indian government reportedly led Twitter and other social media platforms to delete more than 100 posts and URLs critical of India’s handling of the second nationwide wave of COVID19. As previous social media censorship cases have shown, this has forced these platforms, especially Twitter, to delete government-preferred terms. This can be interpreted as a form of “digital dictatorship”, in the face of the risk of government sanctions if social media companies do not comply. 

The silencing of free voices is becoming a matter of daily headlines. This was not always the case, especially when terms such as “democracy”, “freedom of speech” and “rights” were still new. Lauri Hannikainen and Kristian Myntti pointed out that as early as 1688, the British “Bill of Rights” stipulated that “no accusations or charges shall be made in any court or any place outside parliament.” Question the freedom of speech and debate or procedure in the parliament.” 

Article 11 of the French Declaration of Human and Civil Rights in 1789 stated that 

“The free exchange of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious rights of mankind. Therefore, all citizens can be free Speaking, writing and printing, but will be responsible for the abuse of this freedom provided by the law.” 

 Article 19 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that 

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and speech; this right includes the freedom to express opinions without interference, and to seek and receive through any media, regardless of national borders. And freedom to disseminate information and ideas”.

Johannes Morsink pointed out that the Soviet Union proposed an amendment that would deprive Nazi and fascist groups of this right. This forces editors to consider what a tolerant and fair society should look like to intolerant groups. So, as Morsink showed, in Articles 19 and 7, they solved this dilemma by granting everyone two rights: the right to freedom of speech (restricted by Article 29) and the right to be protected from hate speech. 

Even the Indian Constitution provides for the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). This right can be restricted based on grounds provided in Article 19(2), which are: in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or about contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

Article 19(2) of the Constitution, as first drafted, originally stated that “Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it relates to, or prevent the State from making any law relating to, libel, slander, defamation, contempt of Court or any matter which offends against decency or morality or which undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the State.”

Why did things develop to the point where citizens fear the consequences of openly questioning  those in power? Dissent is important in a democratic system, and it raises issues beyond the scope of dissidents. It is part of the essence of democratic thinking. Patrick Geddes, a sociologist at a modern university, shows that, epistemologically and institutionally, without dissident scholars, a modern university is incomplete as a knowledge system. As the biologist and science historian Alfred Wallace said, if science becomes too monolithic, objections need to be invented. Alternative hypotheses, lingering questions, or the possibility that we cannot answer are the lifeblood of the science of thinking. Dissent is the basic expression of difference, interesting enough to threaten the power of those in power. 

India must stop conflating diversity with dissent to celebrate the latter legally. Those in power expressed contempt and tried to discredit any public criticism of corporate executives, foreign leaders, and even schoolchildren. The media is under pressure not to oppose government policies through tactics that involve condemning publishers, cutting off advertisements, and ordering tax investigations. No major criticism is tolerated. New channels for condemning the government’s actions (and inactions) have been temporarily blocked. Several countries have recently used intimidation, harassment, and arrest tactics against scholars, opposition leaders, lawyers, writers, and civil rights activists that can have an impact. The reduction in dissent was also helped by a group of online allies who slandered and harassed dissenters on the Internet. Such an environment allows those in power to control information and shape the narrative. In a system where most people support the ruling government while criticizing the voice of the opposition, some people may not think that all these developments are a big problem. Most people can even actively support it. However, this is a crucial development and a typical page in an authoritative manual. Controlling information and avoiding panic is a core part of how authoritarian leaders maintain power.

Leonardo da Vinci was right in saying,

‘Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.’

The essence of democracy is not ‘one person one vote’ but rather a system of rotation of power where voters have a realistic chance of removing the incumbents out of power if dissatisfied with them. Most modern-day authoritarian regimes have elections; however, incumbents tilt the scales so much in their favour that oppositions are rarely ever able to achieve any electoral gains.

-Ramita Misra


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